Last year I voluntarily downsized my salary, i.e., I decided not to rush to replace all the income lost when MSN Money kicked all its writers to the virtual curb.
Since then I’ve had to make some very conscious choices about what – and whether – to buy. Less money = fewer expenditures.
News flash, right? But what surprises me isn’t that I’m spending less. It’s that I don’t miss any of those things very much.
Social commerce vouchers. I used to buy lots of them – for restaurant meals, discounted massages, soft pretzels, bagels, you name it. I even bought a Groupon for an Alaska water park (insert your own punchline) called H2Oasis, so I could take my niece and her two boys.
Now I find other ways to get my needs met. For example, I treat my great-nephews at home instead of in restaurants (more on that in a minute). While I used to pick up almost every massage Groupon I saw, the new austerity meant fewer rubdowns. So I decided to budget for a single two-hour massage per month from a self-employed masseuse who does an excellent job for a reasonable price.
(And yes, I do consider massages a need rather than a want. No machine runs for almost 57 years without some maintenance issues.)
Gift cards. At least once a month (sometimes more often) I’d send discounted gift cards (movies, restaurants) to a couple of relatives. These days I give darned few “just-because” presents. I’d like to, but they’re simply not in the new budget.
I do give gift cards for birthdays and holidays, but I get them by cashing in points from rewards programs. In addition, I meet many my own day-to-day needs (haircuts, groceries, movies, home-improvement items, drugstore purchases) with discounted gift cards purchased on the secondary market, saving anywhere from 2 percent to 25 percent.
(Speaking of the secondary market: About halfway down the page, on the right, is a widget for Raise, a company that sells discounted gift cards. Choosing to buy in this way would provide a small referral fee for your friendly neighborhood blogger. Every little bit helps.)
More things I skip
Plane tickets. Between 2010 and 2012 I was away more than I was home. Cheap fares were easy to find and frugal hacks like house-sitting, visiting family, staying in hostels and using public transit made travel quite affordable. Or I’d attend a conference and then stay a few extra days to get to know a new place. Since moving back to Anchorage I’ve reacquainted myself with a cold, hard truth: There are no cheap flights from Alaska.
E-mailed coupons. A coupon for Qdoba could tempt me to run out for lunch instead of cooking. I used to print out DQ Blizzard BOGOs and take the boys out for ice cream, or IHOP coupons and take them out to breakfast.
I still use coupons whenever possible, especially at my weekly lunches with Linda B. Sometimes I even use them in conjunction with those discounted gift cards. (Frugal twofer!) But I no longer automatically print out coupons, and instead of taking the boys out to eat I invite them over to Café Awesome.
Kettle corn. Those midnight movie excursions no longer include this delicious but pricey treat. Linda B. and I have mutually sworn off the sauce, for reasons of both health and economics. That’s saving me some pretty decent coin. Over time it may also cut down on the amount of dental floss I buy.
Back on frugal lockdown
After returning to college in midlife during a protracted divorce, I lived pretty close to the bone. In my second freelance piece for MSN Money in 2007, “Living ‘poor’ and loving it” (please note that I did not write the headline), I said that my most important financial-management strategy wasn’t fretting over how to get more. Instead, it was reminding myself how little I really needed – and how much I already had.
That attitude was a big help in slaying my divorce-debt dragons and earning a university degree without student loans. After that I was able to buy pretty much whatever I wanted.
In theory, anyway. I indulged in a fair amount of travel but did so frugally (see above). When at home, most of my meals were cooked in my own kitchen and I rarely shopped for clothing because who cares what a freelancer wears?
Still, I knew that I could spend, and sometimes I did:
- Flying my niece and her two boys down to Seattle for a week-long visit. (The airfare alone approached $1,800 even though I used a companion-fare coupon, and then there were the treats…)
- Sending $100 a month (and more at Christmas) to my elderly aunt, a habit that began before my debt was repaid.
- Mailing just-because gift cards to my daughter and other people.
- Lending money, even though I shouldn’t have.
Now I’m back on frugal lockdown, but you know what? It’s okay.
Sure, I miss being able to send a $25 movie or restaurant gift card – or both – to my daughter. Linda B. and I have been seeing fewer midnight films; instead, we go to the first show of the day or on a Tuesday, when all seats are $6.25.
As for travel: I love being in other places. My recent visit to Austin was delightful, and I’m looking forward to two more work-related trips in the next couple of months. But frequent travel seems less attractive now that I’m in a loving partnership; I miss DF too much to want to pick up and go someplace new every month.
Beyond the bottom line
Lately I’ve had the feeling that life is about to change again, and for the better. Maybe that’s because I recently got an insanely lucrative blog consulting gig for a PR firm. Although it was a one-shot deal, the publicist left the door open to working with her again in the future.
Even if it doesn’t lead to more assignments, it’s one more reminder that at this stage in my life there’s less pressure to take – or keep – jobs I don’t really want. That since I’m not in my early 20s and trying to make a name for myself (and raise a family or pay off college loans), it’s okay not to burn the midnight oil.
Maybe that’s short-sighted. But time is becoming more precious as I get older, and I’m increasingly inclined to believe I should enjoy my gigs, not merely endure them.
Plenty of people don’t have that option. I know full well that this is an incredible luxury. I also know that choosing it means a corollary choice: To woman-up to the consequences, i.e., to keep living in self-imposed semi-penury.
Again: It’s not so bad. Back in 2007 I wrote that while I might not have chosen to be broke, I was going to see what I could learn from it.
“My hope is that it will make me wiser about I eventually seek. … Being poor doesn’t mean not wanting things; it means wanting the right things for the right reasons.
“True prosperity is more than just a healthy bottom line. Being rich wouldn’t necessarily make me happy or generous. Those two states of mind have nothing to do with your bank balance. There’s a world of difference between poverty and poverty of spirit.
“Not that being poor makes me noble. It doesn’t. It just makes me careful. And grateful.”
In 2014, all I can say is: Still grateful.
Readers: Have you trimmed your spending lately, either voluntarily or out of necessity? Got any advice to share?